Which is rich?

In his Quarterly Essay on “The Happy Life,” David Malouf argues that a concept of limitless happiness has somehow infiltrated our collective soul, to our detriment.

Among the many pronouncements that fell from the Treasurer's lips on Tuesday night, one that seems to have stuck in the collective craw is his notion of $150,000 as the line between rich and poor. People on or over that line protest that they are not rich, that they too find it hard to make ends meet.  Perhaps rich is relative; they are only rich compared to the bottom 85% of Australian households. 

Today's Australian has an interview with the Fowlers, a couple on the 'wealth' line. Mr Fowler says: "We've accumulated a nice house full of stuff over the last ten years, but there's no way in the world we're wealthy."  His comment is revealing. An outsider might reasonably assume that in our country, a nice house full of stuff is regarded as both a sign of wealth and a measure (if not a means) of happiness.  Yet someone who possesses such a house, indeed has spent a decade of his life pursuing it, still feels want. Astounding, given that his relative wealth in Australia is nothing to his relative wealth 'in the world.'

'Feels' is the operative word here: are the rich really rich if they don't 'feel' rich? If they feel pressure, want, status anxiety? If they feel supply is unequal to their demand? Given that they're already in the top 15th percentile, a nicer house more full of stuff is clearly not going to make the Fowlers feel better. Something else is going on here. Wealth, like happiness, is qualitative, not quantitative.  Numbers don't guarantee it, and even lines around it, as Malouf suggests, don't guarantee that the quantity measured off will be enough. Maybe - and we have good evidence - there's no such thing as enough.